Book Review: The Door, by Magda Szabó

A friend once obtained permission to tour a mental health facility. A therapy group was meeting. A woman rose and began to relate the terrible abuse she commonly received from her mother, which included belittling, manipulation, and hitting. When she was finished, another participant stepped forward and assured the first speaker that, however hurtful her mother appeared to be, the thing she must never forget was that “Your mother loves you.” Although he’d been conferred observer status only, my friend could not refrain from providing his diagnosis. “Whatever you do,” he addressed the hapless daughter, “you must never forget that your mother doesn’t love you.”

I thought of my friend’s story while reading The Door, Magda Szabó’s novel about the housekeeper Emerence and the theorem that might as well be named for her: that one’s love for a certain person is often inversely proportional to the kindness with which one treats that person. After hiring Emerence to take care of the housework while she writes, the narrator (Magda?) soon finds that Emerence’s love is of the toughest sort. “It was because of our mutual love that she went on stabbing me till I fell to my knees” (p. 157) is an observation that just about sums up the whole book.

The quality of the writing (and Len Rix’s translation) makes the details worth reading, just as a good sportscaster can make even the most brutal prize fight artistically meaningful. Here’s a lively scene involving Magda’s dog, Viola, and a deeply hurt Emerence, whose guest has failed to attend a meticulously-prepared dinner:

Like someone coming round from sedation, [Emerence] shuddered violently, then hurled herself at the happily munching dog and beat him all over with the handle of the serving fork. She called him everything – an ungrateful monster, a shameless liar, a heartless capitalist. Viola squealed, jumped down from the chair and lay on the rug, for her inscrutable judgement to be carried out upon him. He never ran when she beat him, never tried to protect himself. The horror, with all its unreality, was dreamlike. Viola cowered and trembled under the blows, so terrified he couldn’t even swallow the last mouthful. It fell from his jaws onto my mother’s favorite rug. The way Emerence went after him with the serving fork, I thought she was going to stab him. It all happened in a flash. I was so frightened I began to scream. But just then the old woman crouched down beside the dog, lifted up his head, and kissed him between the ears. Viola whined with relief, and licked the hand that had beaten him. (p. 63)

On another occasion, Emerence presents Magda and her husband with an appalling quantity of tchotchkes and then flies into a rage when they are improperly displayed. “‘God knows what I love about you [Emerence says], but whatever it is, you don’t deserve it. Maybe, as you get older, you’ll acquire a bit of taste.’” (p. 81) This rebuke comes after Magda attempts to excuse Emerence to her husband. “I tried in vain to explain to him that the old woman expressed herself through means determined by her own interests. Everything here – he had to accept – was motivated by love. This was her peculiar was of demonstrating her feelings.” (p. 75)

While reading The Door, I often found myself saying, “With love like that, who needs hatred?” and I’ve indeed tried to avoid that kind of love whenever possible. (I recall an NPR report on American gang violence, in which someone explained that people seeking to leave gangs were frequently beaten by their former peers because “There’s a lot of love there.”) Maybe I’m just being naïve, though. “Emerence Love” certainly exists; not only does it form the main subject of The Door, but it also characterizes God’s love as it is found in the Old Testament, as opposed to the New. Emerence is the jealous God of Exodus 20:5, yet to be recast as the God that is love (1 John 4:8) and the love that is never jealous (1 Corinthians 13:4). There’s actually a religious undercurrent in The Door, with Emerence expressing skepticism at Magda’s Catholicism and having a history of helping Jews in the Holocaust.

Questions of religion aside, we all know on a psychological level that some of the most violent human feelings can be twisted mutations of love, the results of love’s wounding in youth. It’s clear in Szabó’s novel that Emerence was an abused girl; hence the love she expresses is of a tortured and torturing kind. Emerence is shown to have loved her pets and to have had them taken away from her. It is quite plausible that her ability to metabolize love suffered at least partly as a result. My not terribly amiable grandfather once told us the story of how his parents once served him his pet rabbit, and the recitation, I feel, spoke volumes.

The Door, at any rate, is such a volume.

Listening to Dvorak with God

The second movement of the American Quartet commenced, and even as the beautiful arpeggios began carrying me away to Spillville and beyond, the perfectionist in me wondered if it was loud enough. However, my heavy limbs could not be moved to reach for the remote to turn up the volume, and I rationalized my inertness by dismissing my perfectionism: If I gave up trying to create the perfect experience (at the ideal volume) and simply let it come to me, then perhaps it would.

At that moment of surrender, the whirring clothes dryer in the next room shut off, and the Dvorak came through in all its purity. I smiled and thanked God for rewarding my faith.

And then the air conditioner clicked on.

My Dream

Here is a description of a dream I had in the early 90s in Taiwan. It is the most intricate dream I have ever experienced and can be broken down into four phases:

Phase I. I am around six years old and am standing in a desolate, Middle Eastern landscape, devoid of any man-made structure, that feels like the “Holy Land.” Nearby is a small pond, and two bearded and robed young men are fishing in it. They are fussing in a primitive way, and I am rather put off by them; looking closely, however, I see that their fishing tackle consists of long blades of grass, with neither hooks nor bait, which they are swishing through the water.

Although no one speaks, the knowledge comes echoing over the hills that God is approaching. I notice a figure emerging through waves of pulsating heat, walking down an incline toward me, as I continue to stand near the pond with the two grass-fishing men. At the wordless realization “It’s Her,” I see that God is a Native American woman, apparently in her mid-twenties. She comes to stand slightly upslope from the pond, and I follow her eyes as she regards the two fishermen: They have both landed healthy-looking, silver-skinned fish, which seem willingly to have threaded themselves through the jaw on the hookless, baitless blades of grass. The men pull their catches out of the water and begin wrapping the blades of grass around their necks, with the fish held in place at the backs of their necks, above their shoulder blades. They tie the grass around their throats, climb the few paces uphill to where God is standing, and fall to their knees before Her in devotion. I fixate on the fish: They are baking in the sun on the backs of the men’s necks, curling their tails upward as they die.

God senses my distress. Turning Her attention to me, she calms me telepathically:

“You must not feel bad for the fish, nor must you think ill of these men for their ritual. They are simple, but their hearts are pure.”

She smiles. “If this ritual is upsetting to you, you do not have to follow it. You do not have to do anything that upsets you.”

She opens Her arms and hugs me to her bare chest, stroking my shoulders, neck, and the back of my head.

I enjoy perhaps five seconds of bliss in Her embrace, but then I hear a clamor to my left, like the clanging of pots and pans. I turn in that direction, and when I do so, I become part of a changed scene; I never see the pond, the fishermen, nor God again.

Phase II. I am in the same Middle Eastern barrenness, but temples and altars now dot the slope. My age is now about fifteen or sixteen.

A portly man is shuffling up to the altar nearest me. He is dressed in a khaki military uniform and seems to be a British soldier of intermediate rank, perhaps a sergeant. He is in a fretful haste and his mess kit and canteen bang together, producing the racket that had seized my attention.

I intuit that the British army is being evicted from the Holy Land and that the sergeant wants to “grab a quick prayer” before leaving. Kneeling at the altar, he begins to pray, but his vexation remains throughout, so that he is praying and cursing at the same time.

A different sort of noise, like the clattering of dishes, rolls in from the right, and I turn in that direction.

Phase III. The landscape is unchanged, but I am now twenty.

I am looking at the Last Supper, as seen in the painting by da Vinci, except that dinner is alfresco. I advance toward the central seat, where Jesus is supposed to be, and find that he is Mark Twain. The disciples to the left and right are behaving like a pack of unruly children, elbowing each other and knocking over their drinks; and Mr. Twain wears an expression of the most grudging indulgence, brimming with sarcasm, rolling his eyes as if to say, “You’d better have mercy on these clowns, Father, because I just want to strangle them.”

I sit opposite Mr. Twain, and we begin sharing the same dish, passing the plate back and forth, helping ourselves to a little at a time. After a few rounds of this exchange, Mr. Twain scrapes off the last morsel and returns the empty plate to me. He produces another supernaturally ironic smile.

An electronic beeping from my right distracts me, and I turn to look.

Phase IV. I am twenty-four (the age at which I had the dream) and in Taiwan (where I lived when I dreamt it).

I am in a cavernous big-box warehouse store. Merchandise-laden shelves tower heavenward, reaching almost to the bare rafters, eclipsing the light. I’m standing in the checkout line, along the conveyor belt, just behind my American roommate, waiting for him to complete his purchases. However, he begins hitting on the cashier, a Taiwanese girl barely twenty. She is unresponsive and unamused. She reaches under the counter, pressing a button, at which the whole scene becomes an image on a TV screen, a video recording now serving as evidence at my roommate’s trial for sexual harassment. The End.

My interpretation: Each phase of the dream seems to correspond to a moment in world history and in the development of religion. Phase I is the Primitive phase, showing the hopeful moment when a religion of ritual evolves into a religion of love. Phase II is the British or imperialist phase, in which religion has been corrupted by power, significantly an unsustainable power. Phase III is the American phase, based on a parody of a painting, populated by quarrelsome chosen ones, and devoted to the worship of Irony, which proves an unfulfilling dish. Finally, Phase IV depicts the post-historical age in which we live: materialist, litigious, godless, and loveless.